A short’s life after Sundance | ParkRecord.com

A short’s life after Sundance

ANNA BLOOM, Of the Record staff

After the Sundance Film Festival documentary, "Freeheld," screens in Salt Lake City Monday and Tuesday, and then in Denver later in the week, it will have qualified for entry to the Academy Awards.

The Academy asks that short films have official theatrical releases in five cities, with one full week of screenings in Los Angeles. There’s also some paperwork involved, but the harder part is to find funding.

Shauna Schmunk, a Park City resident, formed her own nonprofit earlier this year, The Dancing Llama, and has thus far committed herself to four projects, including supporting one woman through college.

This spring, when she was at the Out Giving Conference in Pasadena, Calif., she saw "Freeheld," a film about a lesbian couple struggling to receive state benefits from their county commissioners. The Dancing Llama, she decided, would take on its cause, and in addition to next week’s screenings, she helped to bring the film to Salt Lake’s Pride Week earlier this year.

"In my life I’ve been blessed and privileged and I want to share that wealth with others and give back," she told The Park Record. "I wanted to help Cynthia qualify for an Academy Award."

Schmunk said she would like see some change in same-sex partner benefits in the United States and that the 35-minute film has the power to reach people. "[‘Freeheld’] is very heartfelt and I think it makes an impact on whoever sees it," she explained.

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"Freeheld" won 2007’s Special Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival for a documentary short, but Schmunk is furthering the original intent of the film, one that its subject, Laurel Hester, would have wanted.

One of the reasons the film was edited as a short, was because Hester hoped it would be used as a tool, according to "Freeheld" director Cynthia Wade, and Wade was happy to oblige.

Hester allowed Wade into her life at a time when Hester’s breast cancer had metastasized. Wade filmed the last 10 weeks of Hester’s life: her struggle to get benefits due to her domestic partner, Stacie, after serving as a New Jersey police officer for decades; the diagnosis of Hester’s brain cancer; the intimate late-night hours that test Hester’s relationship with Stacie, an auto mechanic; Hester’s death and memorial service.

"It was devastating she was so sick," recalled Wade in a phone interview. "[The cancer] was progressing so fast, so I wanted to be upfront about what the film would look like. I wanted [Hester] to be a part of the process."

Wade said to keep up spirits during the filming, she and Hester would talk about the Academy Awards and red carpets. Taking a stab at winning an Oscar, means fulfilling a personal promise to Hester.

Wade has a knack for putting herself in the middle of controversy when she makes documentaries. Her HBO documentary "Shelter Dogs," which premiered in 2004 explored a year in the life of a rural animal shelter, where employees must make decisions about whether animals will be spared for adoption or euthanized. According to

According to Wade, grander social issues are best communicated, and understood, through the telling of smaller, personal stories.

"One person’s struggle can illuminate a larger social issue, and makes it much easier for people to understand that Americans still face inequalities," said Wade.

She cites an example of a figure central to Hester’s story her former partner, a fellow Ocean County, New Jersey, police officer Dane Wells. Wells, like much of Ocean County, was admittedly a conservative he says so in the film. He never had to think about gay rights, until Hester, his former colleague, was denied the same pension he was given when he retired. In the film, at meetings with elected officials, Wells is outspoken in his support of Hester and of equal rights for gay couples. Hester’s struggle made the issue personal she had, as his partner, saved his life at least once and he changed his perspective on the issue. Wade says Wells worked tirelessly, alongside others in his police department, for Hester and gay rights.

The film captures Wells at his best, approaching the podium before the board of Freeholders (a colonial term preserved by Ocean County that refers to the equivalent of a county commission) who have the power, given them by the state of New Jersey, to grant same-sex domestic partnerships the same benefits as heterosexual partnerships.

"What we have here is no different from separate drinking fountains or a seat a t the back of the bus," he says to the officials.

Filmed in 2005, Wade regrets there still aren’t many people like Wells, and there are far too many Hesters, fighting for equal rights under the law.

"We want this film to be an advocacy for change," Wade said, speaking on behalf of Hester, her friends and family. "Particularly as we head toward the presidential elections in 2008, where same sex measures will be on so many ballots This fight is happening all over the country."

"Freeheld" will be screened on Monday, July 30 at 7 p.m. followed by Q & A with director Cynthia Wade, at the Tower Theatre, located at 900 South and 900 East. Admission is free.

On Tuesday, July 31, the film will screen again at 4, 7 and 9:30 p.m. without Q and A’s. Admission is $5 on Tuesday. For more information, visit http://www.slcfilmcenter.org.